What I Didn’t Know (in ’81, in ’97, in ’13)…

May 18, 2013

Noah with me, January 3, 2004 [he was five months old]. (Angelia N. Levy).

Noah with me, February 28, 2004 [he was seven months old]. (Angelia N. Levy).

What I didn’t know across the past thirty-two years could be another book for me. I assume that would be the case for anyone would could look back across their life and second-guess themselves over that long a period of time. For me, though, the significance of today comes out of my mathematics background. You see, today’s my sixteenth PhD graduation anniversary. Not all that significant, I suppose. Except that I’m as far away from the end of my graduate school days at Carnegie Mellon today as I was from the first days of being a Hebrew-Israelite and watching my family fall into welfare poverty when I graduated in ’97.

100th Commencement Ceremony program, Carnegie Mellon University, May 18, 1997. (Donald Earl Collins).

100th Commencement Ceremony program, Carnegie Mellon University, May 18, 1997. (Donald Earl Collins).

Two things will hurt your success in this life. One is not acting on the things you know you should or must do. I learned that hard lesson from watching my mother make the decision to not make any decisions until it was too late, all while growing up at 616. Two is the enormous danger of not knowing, and therefore, not being able to act or respond to new or damaging situations as they arise. I’ve learned that lesson pretty well, too. Sometimes the hard way, through really bad experiences or decisions I didn’t play out like a game of eleventh-dimension chess. Sometimes through insight, foresight, even divine inspiration, anticipating what I didn’t know ahead of time.

And even with anticipation, you still might not be able to do anything about what you do and don’t know, simply because you’re not in any position to change things. That was especially true in ’81. I knew that my now deceased idiot ex-stepfather Maurice Washington was no good. But when my Mom decided to end her six months’ separation from him, there was nothing I could really do about it. I knew that with inflation rates of 14.5 percent in ’79 and 11.8 percent in ’80 (thank you, Scholastic Weekly Reader) and my Mom income of roughly $15,000 per year that we had less and less to work with at home. Again, not much I could do about that, either. Even paper boy jobs were drying up by the time I turned twelve!

O'Jays Back Stabbers (1972) album cover, November 10, 2011. (Dan56 via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use as low-resolution illustration of subject matter.

O’Jays Back Stabbers (1972) album cover, November 10, 2011. (Dan56 via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use as low-resolution illustration of subject matter.

What I didn’t know was how quick and violent the shift into poverty would be. What I didn’t know was that Maurice would use his/our conversion as Hebrew-Israelites as justification for abusing my Mom and me. What I didn’t know was that my Mom would have three more kids by this man between July ’81 and May ’84. What I didn’t know was that I would feel so low about the loss of my best friend and my sense of self that I’d attempt to take my own life on my fourteenth birthday, at the end of ’83.

But when I looked back on this in ’97, I mostly thought about the good things that had occurred in the fifteen years between the domestic violence my Mom endured on Memorial Day ’82 and my doctoral graduation ceremony. My independent conversion to Christianity in ’84. Knocking out a 5 on my AP US History exam without ever cracking open Morison and Commager. Overcoming poverty and my lack of self-esteem to build a life at Pitt and in Pittsburgh between ’88 and ’97.

Still, I’d already been wounded, badly. By the things I knew but did nothing about. By those things I could’ve anticipated but my efforts to counteract were insufficient. By those things I couldn’t have known at all. I knew I’d have problems with my “running interference” advisor Joe Trotter coming down the dissertation stretch. Yet because of departmental politics and my need to be done sooner rather than later, I did nothing about this until I was six chapters into an eight-chapter dissertation. I knew my mentor and committee member Bruce Anthony Jones could sometimes be unreliable. Yet I had no idea that he would completely abandon me and his other doctoral students the moment he signed his name to my and their dissertations.

My dissertation's signature page, May 18, 2013. (Donald Earl Collins),

My dissertation’s signature page, May 18, 2013. (Donald Earl Collins),

Most of all, I never anticipated that my Mom would actually be jealous of me, and would spend a whole week with me at 616 and in Pittsburgh doing and saying things to completely disparage what I’d worked so hard for. For me, for her, for my family. That was hard to get over. There are times I’m not sure if I’m entirely over this yet.

What I’m sure of in ’13, though, is what I do know, don’t know, and can only anticipate with the wisdom of experience and wisdom beyond my experience. I know that I love my wife, that there’s a lot in common between her and Crush #1 (for those of you who’ve read Boy @ The Window so far, the implications should be obvious), real and from my own imagination. I didn’t know that I’d have a kid, a son who at nearly ten is both wonderful and perplexing, and hopefully, off to a much better start in life than I ever got. I suspect that one of my references for jobs and consulting gigs has been undermining my efforts over the past five years, and have thus removed her as a reference.

What I don’t know — but can only hope and work like a dog toward — is whether Boy @ The Window will be a success. I’m not sure if quantifying it would help. I sold a thousand copies of Fear of a “Black” America between August ’04 and January ’07, without the benefit of this blog, Twitter, Facebook or the e-book platforms. How long before I sell my first hundred, thousand, 5,000 or more? I have no idea. But as they say, I “must walk the path, not just know it.”

I’m Not Happy Feet (or Ted Williams)

February 21, 2011

Happy Feet Big Dancing Scene Screen Shot, February 19, 2011. Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws, as screen shot is of low quality and illustrates the subject of this post.

Happy Feet Big Dancing Scene Screen Shot, February 19, 2011. Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws, as screen shot is of low quality and illustrates the subject of this blog post.

Remember that homeless Black guy who kicked off our new year a few weeks ago through the power of YouTube and some folks who recorded him and his golden voice on their smartphone? Yeah, how could any of you forget, really? Ted Williams had a whirlwind ten days, as thirteen million people watched the YouTube recording, companies and individuals offered him jobs and money, his family came back into his life. And then, of course, Williams became violent, relapsed into drug use, and is in the midst of rehab — again.

But it all started with his YouTube performance for the good folks of voyeur America. The whole incident made me cringe from start to finish. It also made me think about something that has always bothered me about race in America. Why? Especially since the video surfaced a man who’d been on a downward spiral for three decades? Because it seems that in order for a Black person to be taken seriously in this society, we have to perform like trained seals in order to get the attention we need and deserve.

Ted Williams, Columbus, OH, January 3, 2011. AP. Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because of low resolution and use as subject in blog post.

This isn’t about some metaphorical relationship between excellence and success, or displaying intellect at school and in the world of work. No, this is actually about giving a performance, acting, or as the older folks would say, shuckin’ an’ jivin’, or hustlin’, to grab the attention of mostly Whites in high places. While this isn’t always a bad thing, it also is mostly not good. For it also seems that many of us must experience hardship, prison, drug addiction, abuse and homelessness in order to get attention in the first place.

That’s why it pisses me off when hearing about journalists shadowing the homeless in order to learn about life on the streets. Or when writers sit down with a homeless man or woman to learn about their ironic life story. It also bothers me when I see lists of the “50 Most Successful X” and the “100 Most Innovative Y,” knowing before I read one word that the only Blacks who made these lists were entertainers (I include professional athletes in this category, by the way). It’s disheartening to know that, for all of my writing ability and intellect, the only way I’ll likely be as successful as I hope to be will be by delivering a performance that allows Americans — mostly White — to be voyeurs of my life beyond my words and deep thoughts.

It all came together for me in the Avatar: The Last Airbender episode  (Season 2, Episode 4) “The Swamp,” where Prince Zuko and his uncle Iroh sit at the side of the road in an Earth Kingdom town begging for change. One man forces the once proud general to dance for a gold coin — “Nothing like a fat man dancing for his dinner,” the man says. It speaks to shameful classism — or, at the very least, a sense of class and race entitlement — that we in this country engage in every day.

So, here are a few more thoughts. I look at Ted Williams, The Soloist with Robert Downey, Jr. and Jamie Foxx, even the Pixar/Disney movie Happy Feet (2006) — which me and my wife made the mistake of taking our son Noah to see (he didn’t like the movie, by the way) — and see lots of shuffling across a floor for the attention of Whites (and some people of color) in high places. Do two million penguins really need to tap dance ala Savion Glover in order to get attention from White scientists trying to save life on this planet from our global warming ways? No, but Blacks have had to literally tap dance for food and spare change in the exact same way.

I felt this way in grad school and at various times throughout my career. That I needed to sing, dance and do flips and cartwheels to make myself stand out for my middling White professors and supervisors. It would explain why some of them would ignore my grades, papers and awards to ask me if I could palm or dunk a basketball — out of the blue! Or why a muckity-muck at the Academy for Educational Development would walk by my office, notice the PhD on my name plate, and say, “Wow! You have a doctorate! I thought you only played softball!” I said, “Yeah, that’s why I’ve been working here for three years, just so I can play on the organization’s softball team.”

We ignore those suffering the most, whether because of race or class or gender or a combination of the three (or more) until they do something that impresses us. That’s when they deserve a chance, at least from the perspective of those laughing at them. And that’s shameful, demeaning, and yes, racist and elitist in a very specific way.


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